On allyship: Shutting down debate

It has been three weeks since I wrote my essay about Jews and their allies, and I wanted to offer a followup.

Firstly, I won't be rejoining MetaFilter anytime soon. The moderators were shockingly absent in that thread, to the point that one apologized for his absence, and the resulting unmoderated discussion was so alienating to a number of Jews on the site that they likewise left. The thread is still open and still gets occasional comments, but seems to have wound its way down to a few commenters circling the same few subjects. This sense of irresolution has happened before on the site, in every past thread on antisemitism, and the problem persists.

The thread was instructive, in an unhappy way. The crux of it seemed to boil down to an impasse, and this is where the moderators are going to have to make a decision. The impasse is as follows: I, and several others, argue that discussions of antisemitism on the site must be taken in good faith. You do not need to agree with the conclusion, but you must not dismiss it outright, even when the subject is Israel.


There is a small group on the site that responds to this as though the request will cause an intolerable chilling effect on discussions of Israel. One person, in particular, argued that for every other group we can proceed from the assumption that they are acting in good faith when discussing oppression, but we cannot when it comes to the Jews. Jewish discussions of antisemitism will necessarily be tainted by our relationship with Israel, and therefore must be treated as suspect, as we are either blindly parroting pro-Israel viewpoints put forward by a vast pro-Israel propaganda outlet or are deliberately using charges of antisemitism to shield Israel from criticism.

This is galling. This is usually the point where I would say, yes, there are some Jews who unfairly throw around accusations of antisemitism where the subject of Israel is concerned, and, yes, I know they are irritating. I won't bother with that anymore. Those sorts of people exist in every group, and their abuse of the language of oppression should not be used as an excuse for ignoring discussions of oppression.

I have also dealt with those people, and they represent a minority Jewish opinion that sides itself with Israeli hard-line right wing politics. American Jews solidly back the two-state solution -- 80 percent. A plurality of American Jews find Israel's illegal settlements in Palestinian territories detrimental to Israel's peace process. As a whole, American Jews do not serve at the pleasure of Israel, we do not exist as unpaid propagandists for the country, and we are frequently publicly critical of the state.

Beyond this, I suppose I am part of the press mechanism that the commenter viewed as pro-Zionist propaganda, as community news editor of a Jewish newspaper. I've only had the job for three months, but in that time our coverage has included an awful lot that is explicitly critical of Israeli politics, especially that of the right wing Likud party.

Propaganda for Israel

We republish a great deal of material from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and I suppose you can go to their website and see for yourself if they could fairly be described as pro-Zionist propaganda. If you search for stories about antisemitism, of the past 20 stories, only four of them are about Israel or Zionism in any significant way: Two are about a student from McGill who enjoined students to "punch a Zionist"; one is about the new US envoy to Israel, David Friedman, who is controversial precisely for throwing around accusations of antisemitism and for calling Jews who disagree with him kapos; and one about Marine Le Pen of France's National Front Party saying Jews in France would have to give up dual citizenship with Israel.

You'd be hard-pressed to make the case that any of these four stories use the charge of antisemitism to deflect against criticism of Israel, and the one about Friedman is implicitly critical of him for his abuse of the charge of antisemitism. In the meanwhile, the last 20 stories about Israel include a story about Angela Merkel canceling a join cabinet meeting with Israel over illegal settlements and a story about Israel’s president reportedly saying outpost law makes the country look like an "apartheid state." None of these stories suggest that these critical viewpoints are antisemitic. There is a lot of criticism of Israel's policies published in American Jewish newspapers.

But I shouldn't have to go through and make a case that the Jewish press is not merely a propaganda organ for Israel. The idea that American Jews have divided loyalties and so cannot be trusted to honestly represent their viewpoints in discussion is an antisemitic viewpoint. It paints Jews as untrustworthy citizens, as shifty, and as manipulators of the press, all historical antisemitic charges against the Jews.

And yet it was allowed to stand. Moreover, none of the people in the thread who were afraid accusations of antisemitism would have a chilling effect spoke out against this. This suggests to me that, even if they didn't necessarily agree with it, they found it to be non-controversial. You would think that if someone said, hey, there is this minority group that has suffered two thousand years of oppression, but they cannot be trusted to discuss it because they either manipulate the press or are brainwashed by it, someone might take pause, but apparently not where Jews are concerned. Conveniently, this means that the only people who can be trusted to discuss antisemitism are the very people responsible for antisemitism and who benefit from it.

Jews and Israel

But this goes to a larger problem: People on the site simply cannot stop conflating Jews and Israel. Discussions of antisemitism are endlessly conflated with discussions of Israel, to the point that one commenter said that we have heard the viewpoint of Jews on this subject, but not the other side, meaning Palestinians. But, on the subject of antisemitism, the other side isn't Palestinians, it is antisemites.

This is a moderation issue, and one the moderators seem to be entirely at sea on. They present it as being complicated and nuanced, but there is nothing uniquely complicated or nuanced about anitsemitism, and hand-wringing about the complications is a perfect way to drive away Jewish members while behaving as though it's just too tough a subject to effectively address: One moderator even admitted as much in the thread while still leaving the thread unmoderated enough that a number of Jews left the site.

The people who think charges of antisemitism are used as a dodge repeatedly point to one user, who I mentioned in the last thread: JFA. He is repeatedly accused of this in the thread. When users ask that people on MetaFilter presume good faith when discussions of antisemitism occur, they are told this is impossible, because JFA.

I went back through JFA's posting history and I'll be damned if I can find a single example of him using charges of antisemitism to shut down criticisms of Israel.  Admittedly, I only went back four years, but that seems like enough. In fact, you can find numerous examples of JFA criticizing Israel. I know JFA has had comments deleted in the past, so maybe they were all insane, unjustified accusations of antisemitism, although the moderators often leave notes explaining their deletions. I'm not seeing any saying, essentially, we've talked about this, JFA, and no more of these wild charges, please.

What you do see is that JFA's antisemitism meter seems to be calibrated a bit more sensitively than a lot of people. He is especially keen-eyed for the form that criticism takes, pointing out if it mimics historic antisemitism. This happens once in the thread: A user says that the state of Israel wishes to grind Palestinians into dust, and JFA responds that this is the blood libel; he is immediately told he is wrong. I've seen this previously: JFA once pointed out that you'll see repeated hints of the idea that Jews consume blood in criticisms of Israel, such as Stephen Salaita making jokes about the Israeli company SodaStream selling "Palestinian blood orange flavor."

The pushback against was instant and enormous (it always is), despite JFA saying he doesn't know that this was meant as antisemitism, but when it is pointed out that you have accidentally duplicated a murderous charge against Jews, you would think people would walk it back, and they don't.

It's a fair cop, but it was treated as a wild, unjustifiable accusation designed to suppress dialogue. I don't always agree with JFA, but I don't think he's being dishonest in his participation. There will always be someone whose meter is tuned slightly differently than yours. It doesn't mean they're wrong, and it certainly doesn't mean they're dishonest.

Manufacturing a problem user

But there is this unproven perception of JFA as being a problem user, and therefore, according to critics, it is impossible to request that people address the question of antisemitism on the site because JFA makes it impossible.

This is a moderation issue. Because members of the site have decided that they can insist that JFA be the official spokesperson for the subject, can insist he is a flawed spokesman, and only respond to him and only by litigating what they see as the most problematic part of what he said. It's a perfect dodge, and you see the same tactic with other minority groups. I, and others, in the MetaFilter thread asked repeatedly that the thread not be a referendum on JFA, and were ignored. "maxsparber doesn't get to set terms for what we discuss here," one user said bluntly.

Jews on MetaFilter, including yours truly, have been asking for years for a moderation policy regarding the charge that Jews abuse accusations of antisemitism, and that request has not been honored. We have explicitly asked that the subject of antisemitism be treated as a good-faith discussion.

Instead, users keep singling out one guy, JFA, insisting without evidence he is acting in bad faith, insisting on responding only to him, insisting on responding to only what they see as the most easily disregarded aspects of what he says, and blaming him for this.

That's how you lose members of a community. That's how you lost me. It's not a complicated riddle of nuanced and twisty competing but legitimate agendas. It starts with one question: Do you believe Jews when they discuss antisemitism? And, if you do, what do you do about the fact that there are members of your community who don't believe Jews when they discuss antisemitism?

Until MetaFilter's moderators can answer that question, the thread I started, the one that caused me to feel alienated enough to leave, will happen again, as it has regularly for years now, and more will leave.

We can get into the nuances later. But we must start with a presumption of good faith, and, on MetaFilter, that presumption is not currently extended to Jews. That's a problem, and until it is solved -- and it will be solved with moderation -- it is going to be a site where a lot of Jews are not going to feel very welcome.